Laila Soueif


Born: 1 May 1956 in London, England

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Laila Soueif's parents were Mustafa Soueif and Fatma Moussa. Laila spoke about her father [5]:-
He was an experimental psychologist - one of those who hated psychoanalysis. He was more of a scientist, whereas everyone else in the family was involved in literature for a living. My mother, Fatma Moussa, was a professor of English literature at Cairo University.
In fact Mustafa Soueif translated the writings of Sigmund Freud into Arabic. Laila had an older sister Ahdaf (born 23 March 1950) who became a well-known novelist. She also had a brother named Alaa.

Laila was born in London, England, since her mother was studying for a Ph.D. at the University of London. She was there for the first two years of her life, before returning to Cairo. After a few years in Cairo, she travelled with her family back to England when she was seven years old and spent another year there. Returning to Cairo with her parents she continued her primary education.

She studied mathematics and literature from a young age [5]:-

My interest in mathematics started when I was very young. I was always happiest when I was solving equations. It never felt like work to me! I remember my mother having to ask me to put it aside to do my other homework. When my father saw how much I enjoyed it, he encouraged me to study pure mathematics. I read the giants of Arabic and English literature when I was in primary school. As my mother's daughter, it was inevitable. When I was eleven, I had typhoid and had to stay in bed for days. My mom gave me 'War and Peace' to keep me busy. 
Her parents had been politically active when they were young and they instilled in Soueif a strong belief in justice. When she was growing up she was shocked to hear people speak harshly about Christians or make nasty remarks about people of a different class. Reading about racial discrimination in America upset her, as did stories of apartheid in South Africa. Politics, however, was not a topic of conversation until 1967 when Israel took the Sinai Peninsula in the Six-Day War. The mood of those around Soueif changed with everyone talking of the disaster for the country.

When Soueif was studying at the high school she would walk past Cairo University and see student sit-ins and banners of protest. One day, in 1972, when a protest march was passing her High School with the students demanding a fairer world, freedom of speech and that President Anwar Sadat recover the Sinai Peninsula, she joined in [1]:-

Just two hours after she joined the protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Laila's mother and father tracked down their teenage daughter and dragged her home. "From that, I learned that it was easier to defy the state than to defy my parents," she said.
Ahmed Seif was one of the students arrested because of his role in this demonstration. He would later become Soueif's husband but, at this time, they had not met. Soueif graduated from the high school in 1973 and, in the autumn of that year, she began to study mathematics at the University of Cairo. Ahmed Seif had been released from prison, had returned to the university and was involved with a group called Al-Matraqa which had split off from the communist group. Soueif worked with the group but did not join them, she was too intent on her mathematical studies. She took courses on mathematical logic, set theory, meta-mathematics and algebra.

In 1977, after Soueif graduated, she was appointed as a tutor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Cairo where she began working towards a Master's Degree in algebra. She explained in [5] why she decided on algebra:-

I had considered working on mathematical logic, but I liked the practical side of mathematics, too. Algebra was in between. There is the abstraction, the understanding of where things come from, and there is also the technical side, of creating mechanisms to solve equations.
She married Ahmed Seif in 1978, the year in which Anwar Sadat signed a treaty with Israel which had been promoted by the United States. Many, including Soueif and her husband, considered this to be an act of betrayal putting Egypt at odds with the rest of the Arab world. The first of their children, Alaa (named after Soueif's brother) was born 18 November 1981. Soueif's first mathematics paper, Exchange property in abelian categories and exchange rings, written with I A Amin, was published in 1982. After the award of her Master's Degree she was awarded a scholarship which funded her studies for a Ph.D. at the University of Poitiers in France. She explained in [5] how this came about:-
One day I presented a paper at a conference and one of the attendees was the person who had set up the algebra concentration at the University of Poitiers. At that time, there was a relationship between Poitiers and several of the Egyptian universities, and this man suggested to one of my professors that I do my PhD with him there.
The conference she refers to in this quote is "The Theory of Radicals" held in Eger, Hungary, in 1982. This was the first international conference devoted to the study of radicals of rings and algebras. Soueif went to the University of Poitiers with her baby son Alaa and was assigned Annie Page as her thesis advisor. The professor who suggested she work with him in Poitiers was too busy with politics and had arranged that Annie Page, one of his former students, would supervise Soueif [5]:-
My supervisor [Annie Page] turned out to be great. She was reserved, but she liked me a lot. And she took no excuses. She'd done her Ph.D. as a single mother with two children, and she worried that I wouldn't focus, especially with my young son.
Having a child, however, was a help to Soueif. She said [5]:-
When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn't go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it's worth it. If Alaa hadn't been with me in France, I would have gone mad.
President Sadat had been assassinated in October 1981 and his successor was Hosni Mubarak who ordered a security crackdown. Ahmed Seif, Soueif's husband, was charged with possessing illegal weapons, he was arrested, tortured until he signed a confession, and in late 1984 sentenced to five years in prison. Out on bail until Mubarak approved the sentence, he met up with Soueif who, on hearing of his sentence, had rushed back to Cairo. At first they tried to avoid Seif being sent to prison by going into hiding. For several months they avoided capture but realised that this was no way to live so Seif gave himself up and served out his sentence. Soueif had become pregnant during their time on the run, and their second child, a girl they named Mona, was born on 12 March 1986 in Cairo.

Soueif returned to Poitiers and continued to undertake research for her Ph.D. advised by Annie Page. We should note that she also had an advisor at the University of Cairo, namely Mohamed Abdel-Hamid Imam Amer. Annie Page, however, looked after her [5]:-

... when I came back to Poitiers, I had two children. But my supervisor [Annie Page] knew how to apply pressure, and she made me stay till I finished my thesis.
Things certainly were not easy with two young children and a husband in prison, as she explained [5]:-
The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my Ph.D. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child - why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police - the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don't usually need to know these things when you're four or five. But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.
Soueif published the paper Normalizing extensions and injective modules, essentially bounded normalizing extensions (1987). She gives her address on the paper as 'Département de Mathématiques, 40 Avenue du Recteur Pineau, Poitiers'. She also wrote Exchange of properties in normalizing extensions, which is an 8-page unpublished Poitiers University report dated 1990. In 1989 she was awarded a Ph.D. by Cairo University for her thesis Transfer of properties in normalizing extensions. It was in the same year, 1989, that Seif was released from prison having served his sentence. He had decided that there were better ways to fight for justice and he had spent his years in prison studying law. He was admitted to the Egyptian bar within a month of being released from prison. Soueif was appointed to a tenured professorship in mathematics at Cairo University. With her colleague H H El-Hefnawy, she published the paper Semiprime skew group rings (1994) which extends results of Donald Passman.

Before her paper was published, Soueif's third child, Sanaa Seif, was born on 20 December 1993. As Scott Anderson wrote in [1] (see also [3]):-

With Laila a tenured professor at Cairo University and Ahmed now a lawyer, the couple had the opportunity to carve out a comfortable existence for themselves among the Cairene elite. Instead, and at ultimately great personal cost, they would engage ever more deeply in Egypt's widening turmoil, trying to build bridges across the very ideological divides that had for so long been critical to the government's own survival. [By 2005] Laila and her husband, Ahmed Seif, had been Egypt's most celebrated political dissident couple for well over a decade, serving as constant nuisances to the Mubarak government. Since his release from prison in 1989, Ahmed had become the nation's pre-eminent human rights lawyer, the champion of an eclectic array of defendants in politically motivated cases ... For her part, and even while retaining her mathematics professorship at Cairo University, Laila had gained a reputation as one of Cairo's most indefatigable "street" leaders, the veteran of countless protest marches against the government. Part of what drove her was a keen awareness that, as a member of the Cairene professional class, she enjoyed a freedom to dissent that was all but denied to Egypt's poor and working class. "Historically," she said, "that bestowed a degree of immunity - the security forces really didn't like to mess with us, because they didn't know who in the power structure we could call up - but that also meant we had a responsibility, to be a voice for those who are silenced. And being a woman helped, too. In this culture, women just aren't taken that seriously, so it allows you to do things that men can't."
As well as her involvement in protests, Soueif was a founder of the political movement Kefaya and a co-founder of the '9 March Movement for the Independence of Universities', which, among other things, fought for university presidents and deans to be democratically elected. All three of her children became political activists following a similar path to their mother. For example [3]:-
Laila's son, Alaa, bore the dubious distinction of having been arrested by all three Egyptian governments that preceded Sisi's takeover: those of Mubarak, SCAF and Morsi. In 2006, he spent 45 days in jail for joining a demonstration calling for greater judicial independence. During the SCAF administration, he did a two-month stint in detention for "inciting violence." He fared better under Morsi, if only because the judges, Mubarak-era holdovers, detested the new president; his March 2013 charge of "inciting aggression" was summarily dismissed, while his conviction for arson resulted in a one-year suspended sentence. Given this track record, it was probably just a matter of time before Alaa was picked up by the new Egyptian regime. That occurred on 28 November 2013, when he was arrested on charges of inciting violence and, in a nice Orwellian touch, protesting an anti-protest law enacted just four days earlier. That note of black humour aside, under the rule of Sisi, matters were to play out very differently for Laila's son from the way they had in the past.
Alaa was given a five year prison sentence, while Sanaa, Soueif's youngest daughter protesting her brother's treatment was arrested and charged with violating the "no protests" law. She was sentenced to three years in prison. Soueif and her daughter Mona have both gone on lengthy hunger strikes in protest at Alaa's imprisonment. Ahmed Seif, Soueif's husband, died on 24 August 2014 following open heart surgery. Neither Alaa or Sanaa had been allowed out of prison to visit their dying father in hospital.

Let us end this biography with two quotes, the first from [3] and the second from [4]:-

For decades, Laila Soueif has been a familiar sight at protests across Cairo. From demonstrations calling for academic freedom at Cairo University to the earliest manifestations of the Kifaya movement to the uprising of 2011 and beyond, Soueif is a curiously iconic figure. With her greying and occasionally dishevelled hair and lightly rumpled clothes, the celebrated professor of mathematics is difficult to miss in a crowd. She tends to be the oldest in the pack - but also the most persistent.

Laila Soueif is someone who is driven by her complete commitment to social justice. She has a rock solid belief that this is simply the right thing for a human being to do ... to stand for what you believe in, even if you are alone.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (7 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Entry in the list of African women PhDs

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile
  3. zbMATH entry

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JOC/EFR March 2019
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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